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Update: Obama passport records breached; IT system flagged violation

State Department's privacy protection exposes intrusions; supervisors kept mum

March 20, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Private contract employees working for the U.S. Department of State have repeatedly accessed U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's passport records over the past three months — a breach flagged by the State Department's in-house computer system but subsequently downplayed by the supervisors of the offices in which the breaches occurred. Two of those workers have been fired by their employers. The Obama campaign is seeking answers as to how it happened, and a broader investigation is now in the works. (See FAQ: The Obama breach: What exactly is a passport record?)

The actions of the three separate workers, employees of two different contractors, were described Thursday night by State Department spokesman Sean McCormack as "imprudent curiosity." But he said that is only an "initial finding" and said the department's inspector general has been asked to investigate. Details about the breach emerged in a late-night, hastily called press conference by State Department officials.

More information emerged on Friday, as State Department officials acknowledged that passport files belonging to Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and John McCain (R-Ariz.), had also been improperly accessed in recent months.

McCormack said the department "is not being dismissive of any other possibility," meaning that it hasn't closed the door to motives other than simple curiosity.

None of the people or employers involved was identified. A third contractor was disciplined, but hasn't been fired, for viewing the records and is apparently still doing State Department work.

The breaches occured on Jan. 9, Feb. 12 and March 14, but senior State Department officials weren't aware of them until a reporter sent an e-mail query to the department's press office on Thursday.

Notification, but little prevention

In explaining what happened, the department also provided details about how its security monitoring system works to protect records privacy. The system identifies breaches after the fact.

The State Department has "strict policies and controls" regarding passport records, said McCormack. Employees and contractors are trained on the use of the system, and each time an employee logs onto it, "he [or] she acknowledges that the records are protected by the Privacy Act and they are only available on a need-to-know basis."

The Privacy Act of 1974 (PDF format) requires that "all managers of record systems are responsible for making employees and contractors, working with that system of records, fully aware of these provisions and the corresponding penalties."

"In each of these three cases, the system that was set up to detect any authorized access of these kinds of records worked. These unauthorized accesses were detected by the State Department and immediately acted on," said McCormack.



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